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Ancient and Medieval Metaphysics

Both ancient and medieval authors, from Plato to Aquinas, demonstrated interest in the matters of metaphysics. At the same time, their approach to the subject and the ideas they proposed and entertained differed sharply. Unlike Ancient philosophy, driven purely by the love of intellectual pursuit, medieval philosophy existed under an imperative of reconciling intellectual teachings with Biblical teachings, which makes the former a preferable option for modern culture.

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There are many technical differences and similarities between ancient and medieval philosophers, but the major difference was that the former did not have to conform their teachings to one overreaching dogma. For them, the fundamental conceptions of the universe were merely competing for interpretative frameworks. For example, Aristotle (350 B.C.E.) was well aware of Plato’s theory of forms but did not accept it in the way Plato taught it. In contrast, medieval European philosophy was largely dominated by the Christian worldview. While there were many conflicting interpretations within Christian philosophy, they nevertheless coincided in the basic premises, such as the existence of an absolute Abrahamic God and his central role in creation. As a result, medieval philosophical teachings necessarily had to conform to the dominant worldview of the time, imposing limitations and requirements upon philosophy. Anselm’s (1078) argument in favor of the existence of God as the greatest possible being could be as disputable as Plato’s theory of forms – yet the existence of God itself was indisputable. This presence of an overreaching framework above and beyond medieval philosophy distinguished it from the ancient one.

It is to this fact that ancient and medieval philosophers own most of their differences in how they approach various metaphysical subjects. For example, Aristotle (350 B.C.E.) concludes that badness does not exist in and of itself but, instead, constitutes a perversion or absence of goodness after a rigorous intellectual reflection in book IX of his Metaphysics. Augustine (401) reaches much the same conclusion that evil is not something of substance but merely the absence of good. However, he does it as an attempt to reconcile the pre-existing and axiomatic premise of a benign God with the fact of evil. Similarly, Aristotle’s (350 B.C.E.) Metaphysics establishes the existence of a prime mover – the cause that does not require an external cause – as an intellectual necessity for his teleology. However, the same concept in the hands of Aquinas (1485) turns into an argument for the existence of an Abrahamic God. In short, the method of ancient philosophy was to study metaphysics as it appears to the mind, while the method of medieval philosophy was to study things insofar as they related to Biblical premises.

When faced with the same issues of good and evil, causality, and the existence of God, modern culture could likely draw more from ancient philosophy than from medieval one. As mentioned above, Aristotle’s (350 B.C.E.) and Augustine’s (401) reflections on evil or his and Aquinas’s (1485) deliberation on the first mover are very similar, save for the fact that medieval philosophers apply these arguments to pre-existing Biblical axioms. Since modern metaphysics is not nearly as dominated by religion as it was in the Middle Ages, the emphasis on reconciling philosophical teachings with Biblical dogma should be of less importance to it.

To summarize, ancient and medieval authors differed considerably in their views on metaphysics. The main source of these differences was that medieval philosophers had an overreaching framework in the Christian religion that outlined the axiomatic premises for their religious inquiry even when they used the same methods. Since modern metaphysics does not need to philosophically justify Christian dogma specifically, one may argue that the freer ancient approach toward intellectual deliberation may be more suitable for modern culture.


Anselm, St. (1903). Proslogium; Monologium: An appendix in behalf of the fool by Gaunilo; And cur Deus homo. Open Court Publishing.

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). Metaphysics. The Internet Classics Archive. Web.

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Aquinas, T., St. (1485). Summa Theologica. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web.

Augustine, St. (401). The confessions of Saint Augustine. Project Gutenberg. Web.

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